Criterion Sunday 157: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

There are a lot of charges that get levelled at Wes Anderson, his filmmaking and his films — often feelings that I’ve held at some time or another — which is usually around the fastidiousness with which the sets are designed, or the shots are framed, about the sense that emotion has been overwhelmed by the constructedness of the places within which they’re shared, stuff like that. And as I said, sometimes I really do feel that, but while ultimately he may have an outcome very clearly in mind, he’s also canny enough to hire actors who are able to get at something, and it’s something that in Royal Tenenbaums feels particularly deep and sad. Anjelica Huston and Gene Hackman really underpin this whole enterprise, as Etheline and Royal, the estranged heads of this particular family, and it all seems to first come together in the scene where Royal confronts her outside his building, in front of a Japanese embassy building, at first saying he’s dying then retracting that when she makes what he considers too much of a scene, all conveyed in small gestures with a largely static camera.

Thinking about the fact that I recall where it takes place, I don’t happen to think that these details, however elaborately placed, are always all that deep. The embassy has a zen garden after all, which we learn about (and becomes relevant) later, but also that idea of zen seems metaphorically perhaps to be juxtaposed with this emotionally-charged scene that plays out in front. The film is replete with such details, little flourishes around the edge of the frame, but they feel more like a crutch to help the actors, because it’s in them that the film lives. I’ve seen it many many times, but for the first half an hour I don’t particularly feel connected to any of them — they seem at first to be just a set of attributes that Anderson accretes, like the clubs that Max Fischer is part of in Rushmore, more a substitute for character than an expression of it. And when overlaid with the just-so music choices, it almost feels manipulative.

It’s just that, as the film progresses, a sense of this family’s atomisation and the way that every character, deep down (or not so deep in some cases), is fundamentally broken becomes overwhelming. And it’s at that point that I start to go with it, for all that I resist Anderson’s “quirks”. It’s at this point that the children, who seem at first to be so programmatic in their construction (a troubled sports star, an angst-filled artist, an over-compensating business savant), come centre stage, and even actors who I’ve never really felt particularly strongly towards, people like Luke Wilson and Gwyneth Paltrow, become so affecting, perhaps because of this. And so the expression of their pain, in conjunction with the sets, the props, the music choices, becomes really, almost strangely, comforting. It’s a film that seems to express the idea that everything can become alright, bearable and liveable despite all the pain.

What I’m left with, then, as something that I find difficult to therefore integrate into this world, is how white it is, Danny Glover’s accountant Henry Sherman aside. All the people of colour are supporting, in almost servile ways, emotional supports for damaged, rich white people. Too many of these minor characters, whom I recall as being treated rather generously, in fact seem rather the butt of jokes upon rewatching the film. How can I sympathise with Royal’s character (which is clearly the intention) when his idea of tearing it up and rebelling against the system seems to involve throwing water balloons at the “Gypsy Cabs”, amongst other things? I don’t know, this may be a blindspot for me, or it may be for Anderson, and it leaves me feeling slightly less generous, but on the whole this is a deeply affecting family drama dressed up as spritely comic fluff.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • This disc is packed with little extras, primary among them being a short video documentary portrait directed Albert Maysles (with Antonio Ferrera and Larry Kamerman), With the Filmmaker (2001), in which you really get a sense of how fastidious Wes Anderson is about the details. He also opens up about his process, and the sense (which I think is apparent from the film) of how he feels less obsessed with cinematography and set design and more open to collaboration with actors, although you certainly don’t feel that from all the scenes of him, say, colouring in the hair on one of his brother’s illustrations that will be glimpsed maybe for a brief split-second in the corner of one shot. I end up feeling that Wes Anderson is just the kind of guy I imagined he’d be, and I think that’s a good thing?
  • There are two cut scenes in fairly rough form, one showing Eli Cash’s wife and children (incidentally the wife appears to be Olivia Williams, who starred in Rushmore, though perhaps I’m just wishing it were), presumably excised because that was just a little too much detail that was distracting, and another showing a dinner sequence in which Henry romances Etheline.
  • There are a number of ‘scrapbook’ entries, including some evocative production stills, as well as details of all Eric Chase Anderson’s drawings (the ones that Richie draws of his sister, as well as the ones that adorn his room’s walls), the book and magazine covers with their blocks of Helvetica text, a few choice storyboard pages showing Anderson’s clear visual sense of how the finished film would look, and a short radio interview with the artist Miguel Calderón whose large-scale paintings so memorably adorn Eli’s home.
  • The disc features a series of short interviews with all the leading cast members, reflecting on their characters in the film and their work with Wes Anderson.
  • One of the more interesting extras is an entire episode of the fictional show-within-a-show presented by Peter Bradley (an interviewer apparently modelled on Charlie Rose, and clearly a bit of a creep given we see him in the film at one point fondling Margot’s breast in a backstage scene). His interview is with many of the minor characters, including the Pallanas (father and son Kumar and Dipak), as well as the actors who play the Indian tennis player Richie breaks down while playing, and a guy with the surname of Tenenbaum who’s been in all Anderson’s films. It all feels pretty authentic, especially in the way it’s so excruciating at times to watch, as Bradley messes up all the names, and can’t seem to finish a coherent line of questioning.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Wes Anderson; Writers Anderson and Owen Wilson; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Luke Wilson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Owen Wilson, Ben Stiller, Danny Glover; Length 109 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Sunday 24 March 2002 (and later at Manners Mall Cinema, Wellington, Sunday 16 June 2002, as well as a number of times on DVD subsequently, most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Sunday 27 October 2019).

Criterion Sunday 65: Rushmore (2008)

I suppose one could call this Wes Anderson’s breakthrough movie after his debut Bottle Rocket (1996). It’s certainly eye-catching, with its saturated colours and carefully-honed set design and graphical effects, like the bold blocky typeface that sets out the titles and immaculate calligraphy, the theatrical curtains that part to open each chapter, and its clearly elaborately-storyboarded shot sequences. In fact, it’s one of the films that mines the most comedy I know just from the framing of the characters, as when Jason Schwartzman’s perennially overambitious underachiever Max Fischer steps into a two-shot with Bill Murray’s property developer Herman Blume, who looks suitably flabbergasted to find himself in such tightly-framed confines. This in many ways seems like his special skill — as if the fictional character had the power to force the film’s director to re-frame him in ways more befitting his overinflated sense of himself. In being such a boundary-busting egomaniac, Max is for much of the film an only barely-likeable dick, and much of the film’s pleasure lies in those supporting performances from Murray, from Brian Cox as Rushmore Academy’s matter-of-fact headmaster, and from Olivia Williams’ accommodating schoolteacher Rosemary Cross. If in looking back at Rushmore, it all seems a little bit arch at times, a little bit too-perfectly constructed and orchestrated — in ways that hamper the kind of emotional transference that Anderson’s later films would more successfully achieve — it’s still an excellent calling card, in many ways quite out-of-step with what was being made in the late-1990s and all the more refreshing for that.

Criterion Extras: There’s a rather fuller schedule of extras with this edition, all of which are interesting. First off, the commentary by the director, co-writer and star is chatty, with Anderson and Wilson taking up much of the chatter in the early portions, and Schwartzman pitching in more later. There’s a rather slight ‘making-of’ by the director’s brother Eric, some scratchy video audition footage, and some short works by the ‘Max Fischer Players’ that present amateur theatrics productions of scenes from three other nominated movies of the 1998 season. Most substantial is the episode of The Charlie Rose Show which features a lengthy interview with Bill Murray, who seems relaxed and talks at length about the film and some aspects of his career and persona, as well as a shorter head-to-head with the director.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Wes Anderson; Writers Anderson and Owen Wilson; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Olivia Williams, Seymour Cassel, Brian Cox; Length 93 minutes.

Seen at Rialto, Wellington, Saturday 22 May 1999 (and subsequently at home on VHS, DVD and Blu-ray, on many occasions, most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Saturday 12 December 2015).

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

And thinking again of the sameness of Vinteuil’s works, I explained to Albertine that the great men of letters have never created more than a single work, or rather have never done more than refract through various media an identical beauty which they bring into the world.
— Marcel Proust, La Prisonnière (1923, trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin)

Like perhaps many (too many?) in the English-speaking world, I have never encountered the writing of Stefan Zweig, from whom director and writer Wes Anderson claims inspiration for this confected mittel-European tale set over three successive post-World War II generations. However, I find myself drawn to comparisons with the work of Marcel Proust, which I am reading at the moment and have been for about the last year (making such connections rather more inevitable perhaps; I don’t know whether the quote above is really relevant, but I read it this morning, so it’s in my mind, and it does seem to speak to Anderson’s oeuvre). Mainly it’s the sense that this huge cast of characters have been distilled down into a series of fragmentary glimpses as relayed via an unreliable narrator through many layers of history and nostalgia and refracted by a world-changing war. It’s this last detail which seems most to suffuse the film, for it provides most of the pathos, that sense which is only hinted at around the edges and in small almost-throwaway lines, as it becomes clear in the telling that all of these characters — indeed this whole worldview and way of life — have since disappeared. But in many ways that’s what Anderson’s filmmaking has been building to, conjuring up a spectral reminiscence of a lost world.

Re-reading my pretentious opening paragraph, I suspect that it’s just in the nature of the film to encourage this kind of reading. The Grand Budapest Hotel is not abstruse or difficult in any way, but it is layered. The key metaphor for me is the elaborate layered cakes made by the bakers in the film, Mendl’s, which seem to reflect the way that the film is structured, not to mention its candy-coloured set design and the superficial sweetness of its surfaces. Most notably, the film is nested within four different generations of narration: the first is a young student visiting a statue of the Great Author and reading his eponymous account of his earlier life at the titular hotel; the second, the Author (Tom Wilkinson) at home in 1985; the third, ostensibly drawn from the book, is that Author as a young man (Jude Law) talking to Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) in the decaying 1968 lobby of the hotel; and finally, there’s Zero as a lobby boy (Tony Revolori) working under the concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) in the hotel’s 1932 glory days. For all these levels of narrative fragmentation, most of the film is set in the 1930s strand. The four are distinguished by different aspect ratios (a Cinemascope widescreen sweep for the late-1960s, with 1.85:1 at varying zooms for the more recent scenes, and finally ‘Academy ratio’ of 1.33:1 for the oldest), which along with the usual obsessively-detailed set and costume design, means it never gets too confusing when the film jumps around in time.

The actual plot of the film is something of a caper, as dapper roué Gustave H. is bequeathed the fortune of elderly heiress Madame Celine Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Tilda Swinton), which is quickly contested by her diabolical sons and leads to plenty of deadly ado, set against the background of a coming war. The posters already make clear quite how many people are in this film, but they and their stories all support the central picaresque tale of young Zero, accompanying Gustave everywhere, and in the process finding his way in the world. In the film’s title, location and the year of its setting, I am reminded of Grand Hotel (1932), itself a multi-character story of criss-crossing lives and old world European opulence. Perhaps more atmospherically linked are the mannered and beautiful films of Max Ophüls, such as La Ronde (1950) or his luridly coloured final work Lola Montès (1953) — indeed one of the best of his films (Letter from an Unknown Woman, 1948) is also based on a work by Zweig.

My point, in any case, is that Anderson has crafted a richly-detailed work that harks back to a history of twentieth-century culture and politics. One needn’t pick up all the references, so crammed in are they, but it adds depth to what at its heart seems like a very silly story with a large cast of colourful characters. All the small details accrue in the mind and work their way into the imagination, such that a week after viewing it I still have a strong sense of it and its delirious charms, which is more than can be said for most films. I can’t comment so soon on whether it’s Anderson’s best work (The Royal Tenenbaums remains my favourite), but it’s a strong reminder that he hasn’t yet disappeared within his own pretensions as many including myself had at one point feared. If he is here conjuring something of an identical beauty to those earlier films, it’s one that continues to resonate.

Update after Second Viewing: There’s a precarious sense of mortality which subtly encroaches around the edges of many of the film’s otherwise superficially innocuous action. It took me quite a while, after all, to realise that The Royal Tenenbaums was more than just a jolly colourful farce and realise it was laden with affecting pathos (which came home to me when I watched it with my wife, and found myself in tears at the end). Still, the febrile comic persona of Ralph Fiennes’ Gustave H. comes through all the more strongly, with the running gags of his inappropriate swearing, not to mention the way his recitations of romantic poetry are consistently cut off, remaining especially funny on second viewing.

The Grand Budapest Hotel film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Wes Anderson; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham, Saoirse Ronan; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 24 March 2014, and later at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Tuesday 1 April 2014.